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Business sense on exhibit at St. Louis museums
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Business sense on exhibit at St. Louis museums

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ST. LOUIS  • As the days of baseball and barbecue wind down and St. Louisans turn increasingly toward indoor pursuits, museums here are making final preparations for this fall's special exhibit season.

For two of the biggest coming shows, the Missouri History Museum and the St. Louis Art Museum are developing special exhibits in-house, largely with pieces from their own collections that aren't on permanent display.

No one is predicting the death of the mega-exhibits showcasing, for example, treasures of emperors, pharaohs, pontiffs or the Titanic. Yet many museums around the country are increasingly shifting away from those big traveling shows in favor of homegrown exhibits — often as a way to avoid paying the high costs of insuring and transporting items borrowed from other institutions, or rented from for-profit exhibit companies.

"Obviously, there are still (traveling) blockbusters, and there will continue to be blockbusters," said Jay Rounds, a former curator and museum executive who now directs the museum studies program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "But the trend has turned away from them. You hear a lot more about working with the permanent collection."

In March, the Association of Art Museum Directors released survey findings showing 71 percent of the group's members planned to increase the use of museum-owned pieces in exhibitions, a big increase from 57 percent six years ago.

Citing the expense of booking flashy, blockbuster exhibits, Baltimore's Walters Art Museum has focused on building shows from what it already owns but might not regularly be on public view. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art have also been developing exhibits largely from works they already own.

Rounds says there are two main criticisms of traveling museum exhibits: they often cost too much, and museums that rely too heavily on them risk decreasing the public interest in the permanent collection.

When shipping and insurance costs are factored in, the glitziest traveling exhibitions can cost a museum millions of dollars, and a shaky economy could make it less likely that visitors will pay high ticket prices to offset those costs.

Local museums, though, say the issue isn't quite so simple. For one thing, the decisions to present the major exhibitions this fall were made several years ago. What's more, the exhibits aren't particularly inexpensive to organize.

The history museum estimates that it will spend $1.4 million putting on "Civil War in Missouri" to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the war. The exhibit, which opens Nov. 12, will draw heavily from the institution's collection of thousands of artifacts, artwork and documents from that period. The museum might have free access to those pieces, but using them has extra costs not associated with road exhibits curated by other museums or for-profit companies, said President Robert Archibald.

Those expenses include research by museum staff, as well as extensive conservation efforts on clothing, weapons and other objects that have sat in storage for years, sometimes decades. The museum hires outside designers to consult on what the exhibit should look like, and then the displays themselves need to be built.

In 2014, the history museum will present another major exhibit developed in-house. That show, the "American Revolution on the Frontier," is estimated to cost the museum $3.5 million — far more than any traveling show the museum has ever booked.

The cost of the Civil War exhibit is considered a capital expense, Archibald said, and the museum has been raising private money to support the show. If the show is a success, the museum expects to recover as much as one-third of the exhibit's costs from ticket sales and associated revenue.

"In the end, we don't judge an exhibit's success by the numbers," Archibald said. "If people come, that's an indication that they enjoyed it. But that's different from judging (an exhibit) by how much money we shook out of people's pockets."

The St. Louis Art Museum plans to open "Monet's Water Lilies" on Oct. 2. The show wrapped up last month at Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. In 2015, it moves on to the Cleveland Museum of Art.

It's not happenstance that these three museums are showing the exhibit. Each institution owns one-third of the Agapanthus triptych, a three-painting series Claude Monet painted between 1915 and 1926, late in the life of the French impressionist. The central panel has been a favorite of visitors to the St. Louis museum for decades. When the exhibit opens here, the art museum will augment its 42-foot-long triptych with five other Monet paintings.

Simon Kelly, the museum's curator of modern and contemporary art, said the exhibit is years in the making, and organizing it wasn't as simple as arranging a few art loans.

The exhibit is a scholarly show, he said, and preparing for it involved extensive research on the paintings. For instance, the museum conducted X-ray and cross-section studies that revealed Monet was not the spontaneous outdoor painter he is sometimes thought to be, but rather an obsessive artist who revised his work over and over again.

Unlike a traveling exhibit that is largely unrelated to the museum's own collection, this show will give St. Louisans a fresh perspective on museum-owned work, Kelly said.

"It wouldn't surprise me if you see more shows like this in the future," he said.

Another example of the art museum capitalizing on its own collection might be an unusual exhibit that wrapped up last month and will return next summer.

About 40,000 people watched a public restoration of the 348-foot-long "Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley." The museum created a public attraction out of something that typically would happened behind closed doors.

The panorama, which was painted in the 1850s, was a forerunner to film, allowing crowds to see sprawling scenes of places they'd never visit in person. When the conservation project is complete, the panorama will be on permanent display.

The St. Louis Science Center has relied heavily on traveling exhibits in recent years, like its current "Body Worlds & The Brain" exhibit.

A similar exhibit at the science center in 2007 and 2008 generated about $1 million and was the biggest moneymaking exhibit in the center's history. It's too early to tell whether the museum will repeat that success with the current show, which ends next month.

The center's interim president, Philip Needleman, recently criticized some past exhibits — including one from 2005 and 2006 that showed artifacts from the Titanic — as being too light on science content.

Needleman has told science center commissioners and an oversight board of the St. Louis Zoo-Museum District that the center will put future exhibits through more rigorous reviews to make sure they fit with the institution's mission and make economic sense.

The first exhibit to pass through that extra scrutiny opens this fall. "Star Trek: The Exhibition" will explore the science behind the popular sci-fi franchise.

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